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Food and Drink

The completely correct guide to eating and drinking on a plane

Associated Press archive 1972

Before a recent flight across the country, I bought a shawarma wrap at the airport to take into the cabin. At the time, it seemed like a brilliant idea: I knew I’d get hungry, and this Lebanese place looked good for an airport fast-casual spot. A chicken wrap would be much more satiating than whatever dry snacks would be offered for purchase.

The minute I pulled the shawarma out on the plane, I realized my huge mistake. I hadn't accounted for my wrap's fiercely potent aroma. It hadn't smelled particularly fragrant on the ground, but now, things were different.

Shame radiated off me along with the pure essence of garlic wafting into the cabin's recycled air. I was the monster who brought this onto the plane, and now everyone had to inhale my meal.

A lesson was learned that day. One must choose one's plane food wisely.

It’s not only food you need to take into consideration. There are also issues with drinking, cutlery, trash. To get everyone on the same page about the do’s and don’ts of eating and drinking on a plane, we’re putting the rules in writing.

We consulted Shanie Peralta, an Association of Flight Attendants-CWA member and flight attendant for a regional carrier that travels between the southeast United States, the Caribbean and chartered routes. Some of this stuff is common sense, "but common sense is not always common," says Peralta.

According to Peralta, the majority of passengers aren't traveling with their own snacks.

"It is a small minority of people who bring food onboard, but you do get offenders who like to bring egg salad or tuna sandwiches," Peralta says. "In their mind, they don't think they've done anything wrong. They're just like, 'Hey, I want to eat my tuna sandwich. I'm hungry.'"

Don't be that offender. And please, we're begging you, don't lick your fingers.

Enjoy: A clean eating surface by bringing wipes.

Peralta strongly recommends that passengers bring disinfecting wipes in their carry-on for tray tables. Give that thing a good wipe-down, because it doesn't get cleaned every day.

"There's a lot of things that happen on these tray tables," Peralta says. "People change diapers on these tray tables. That happens a lot, more than people think."

Other potential contaminants include previous passengers' food remnants, or their drool, or their sneezes. Grab some Lysol sheets before setting up an in-flight picnic.

Avoid: Bringing pungent items.

This should really be rule No. 1, but the tray-table thing was so unnerving, we had to start there. Anyway, the First Commandment of plane eating is: Thou shalt not bring strong-smelling food on a plane. Flying is already stressful and uncomfortable. There's no policy about bringing on aromatic food; however, that doesn't mean on your flight to Phoenix, you should crack into fermented shark.

"You can bring whatever snacks you want, but be mindful that other people don't want to smell what you're eating," Peralta says.

You're not just offending the people in your own row.

"It smells up the cabin immediately, and you can smell it from the back, from the front, wherever you're at in the aircraft," Peralta says.

Avoid: Eating “loud” foods.

Before you start chomping into that perfectly crisp Fuji apple, consider the travelers with misophonia, a disorder that triggers physical and emotional responses to sounds like chewing, tapping and gum-snapping. But beyond them, the sound of gnawing on that fruit, or on corn nuts, or carrots can be just plain obnoxious to everyone.

Consider the auditory stimuli of eating your in-flight food, and avoid items that are noisier than most.

(AP Photo/David Kohl)

Avoid: Digging into messy foods and opening fizzy drinks.

Eat clean, and we don't mean a plant-based, minimally processed diet. We mean: Don't go crazy with foods or drinks that run the risk of getting all over while you're smashed next to strangers in a small space. That means Nature Valley granola bars, big bowls of soup, chips and salsa. Beware of exploding carbonated beverages like kombucha or sparkling water.

Your crumbs and spills aren't only affecting the people near you. Flight attendants become de facto janitors. You're making their job, and that of the cleaning crew who comes on later, harder.

Traveling with a toddler? They're the worst - in terms of messes.

"Toddlers are the biggest offenders," Peralta says. "They fuss and throw, and you find all sorts of interesting things under the seat. You have crushed chocolate chip cookies on the ground, and chocolate smeared on the seat. It's a mess."

Be mindful of your kid's ways when packing snacks for the ride.

Enjoy: A minimalist approach to dining.

Flying in economy requires some spatial awareness. Your seat is small. Your tray table is small. Your legroom is small. Clutter catches up with you fast. You're going to be eating your meal while trying not to elbow your neighbors, like you're playing the board game Operation.

Don't bring a bunch of condiments, an array of cutlery, or a cornucopia of containers and expect the eating experience to go smoothly. If you must use those artisanal cocktail kits, keep them close to you and make sure you're not accidentally zesting your neighbors with garnish.

Avoid: Bringing common allergens on a flight.

People can get sick from coming into contact with ingredients like peanuts and shellfish. Do vulnerable passengers a solid, and leave those foods for another occasion.

Avoid: Drinking alcohol you brought.

According to Transportation Security Administration regulations, you can bring a small bag of miniature alcohol bottles. But there's a catch. Although you can bring on less than 3.4 ounces, or 100 milliliters, of alcohol (below 140 proof), it's illegal to drink it in-flight. FAA regulations ban drinking "any alcoholic beverage aboard an aircraft unless the certificate holder operating the aircraft has served that beverage to him."

In other words: "If we didn't serve it to you, you can't have it," Peralta says.

Even though you're trying to save money by BYOB, it's against the law to crack open your own cold one.

Enjoy: A few cocktails, but don’t get drunk.

Get drunk before you cross the jet bridge, and you could be denied the opportunity to board. Get drunk on the flight and cause problems, and you could end up getting the plane grounded, facing legal ramifications and paying fines in the tens of thousands of dollars.

"If it's affecting the security and the safety of other passengers, or they're causing harm to themselves, then yes, we intervene and call the captain, and we have procedures for that," Peralta says.

Know your limit.

Avoid: Leaving trash in the seat pocket or on the floor.

You'll have to dispose of your food waste somewhere. Don't be one of the many, many people who tucks their trash under the seat and leaves.

"We'd rather you give it to us than put it on the floor," Peralta says. "We can go through the cabin a hundred times [collecting trash], and you still will find all these bags of Subway, McDonald's, everything under the seat."

Leaving litter behind slows down the cleaning process and could delay the next flight. Every banana peel you smush into the seat back pocket is more time and work for someone else. If you're embarrassed to hand the flight attendant your mountain of trash, you're bringing too much stuff.

"You can't be getting a family meal at KFC and giving me all that trash," says Peralta, "because our trash cans are not that big."

Do right by cleaning crews and carry on small, disposable items. Throw them away with the flight attendants who come through to collect trash.

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